BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's (search) landmark constitution seemed assured of passage Sunday after initial results showed minority Sunni Arabs (search) had fallen short in an effort to veto it at the polls. The apparent acceptance was a major step in the attempt to establish a democratic government that could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Opponents failed to secure the necessary two-thirds "no" vote in any three of Iraqi's 18 provinces, according to counts that local officials provided to Thcrucial central provinces with mixed ethnic and religious populations, enough Shiites and Kurds voted to stymie the Sunni bid to reject the constitution.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (search) issued a decree setting Dec. 15 for Iraqis to vote again, this time to elect a new parliament. If the constitution indeed passed, the first full-term parliament since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003 will install a new government by Dec. 31. If the charter has failed, the parliament will be temporary, tasked with drawing up a new draft on which to vote.
But the outcome could further divide the nation, with many Sunnis fearing the new decentralized government will deprive them of their fair share in the country's vast oil wealth. Large numbers of Sunnis voted "no," and some of their leaders were already rejecting the apparent result.
While a strong Sunni turnout in Saturday's referendum suggested a desire among many to participate in Iraq's new political system, there were fears that anger at being ruled under a constitution they oppose could push some into supporting the Sunni-led insurgency.
"If the constitution was passed, the attacks will definitely rise against the occupation forces, and the security situation is going to be worse," said Sheik Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a prominent cleric with the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, which government officials accuse of links to the insurgency.
In a sign of the relentless danger, five U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday by a bomb in Ramadi, a hotbed of militants west of Baghdad, the military announced. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. troops since a Sept. 29 bomb blast in the same town also killed five soldiers. A Marine was also killed by a bomb Saturday in the town of Saqlawiyah, the military said.
The most recent deaths brought to at least 1,976 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an AP count.
President Bush congratulated Iraqis on the referendum, which across the country saw few attacks and no deaths of voters in violence.
"The vote today in Iraq is in stark contrast to the attitude, the philosophy and strategy of Al Qaeda, their terrorist friends and killers," Bush said.
The constitution is a crucial step in Iraq's transition to democracy after two decades of dictatorship under Saddam. Washington was hoping it would pass so Iraqis can form a legitimate, representative government, tame the insurgency and enable the 150,000 U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.
On Sunday, U.S. military helicopters, Humvees and armored vehicles were helping transport the last ballot boxes from polling stations to counting centers in the provincial capitals. Those centers were making initial counts, then were to truck the ballots to Baghdad for the final tallying, which was likely to begin on Monday and to last into Tuesday.
In Baghdad's main counting center, workers tallied votes from the region around the capital. The center was shaken Sunday when militants fired two mortars into the Green Zone, the heavily guarded district where the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and the counting site are located. But the mortars did not hit the center and caused no casualties or significant damage.
Provinces in the south, where most of Iraq's Shiite majority are concentrated, racked up big "yes" numbers — over 90 percent in favor in most places. Results were not yet available from Kurdistan, but the Kurdish community strongly supports the charter.
Still, despite a call by their top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to support the charter, Shiite participation in the south was far lower than parliamentary elections in January, when huge numbers of Shiite voters — more than 80 percent — celebrated as they went to the polls to mark their new dominance of the country.
Between 54 and 58 percent of voters showed up Saturday in most parts of the south, according to U.N. elections chief Carina Perelli. The drop could reflect a belief that the constitution's victory was a sure thing or a vein of discontent among Shiites.
"Why should I care? Nothing has changed since we have elected this government: no security, no electricity, no water," said Saad Ibrahim, a Shiite resident of Baghdad's Karrada district who passed on voting. "The constitution will not change that. The main issue is not getting this constitution passed, but how to stop terrorism."
The Sunni "no" campaign appeared to have made the two-thirds threshold in Anbar province, the vast western Sunni heartland; and Salahuddin, where Sunnis hold a large majority and as many as 90 percent of voters cast ballots.
But in two other provinces where Sunni Arabs have only slim majorities — Ninevah and Diyala — the "yes" vote won out.
Sunni leaders responded angrily, some of them saying they suspected fraud and accusing American officials and the Shiite parties that dominate the government.
"There is no doubt that America has interfered in the process, since they and the Shiite government are supervising the whole operation, and since both want this draft to pass," al-Kubaisi said.
Although U.S. officials played an intense role in mediating negotiations over the draft constitution, they had no role in the counting process, run by an Iraqi elections commission.
Still, many Sunnis expressed helplessness in their new status as the weaker party in a nation they once dominated under Saddam.
"Whatever happens or will happen in politics has nothing to do with the will of the people. It comes from the political elite who run Iraq along with the Americans out of the Green Zone in Baghdad," said Zuhair Qassam al-Khashab, a mathematics professor in Mosul who voted "no."
The Sunni turnout in some areas Saturday stood in contrast to January's elections, which they boycotted because they believed the political process was giving unfair power to the Shiite majority. That move cost left them with a minuscule presence in parliament.
Enthusiasm was highest in Salahuddin and the Anbar city of Fallujah, where some 100,000 people voted — and the constitution's success could hit hardest in those areas. Anbar already is the main battleground between Sunni insurgents and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
But in the two other possible swing provinces, the "yes" vote won the day — 70 percent to 20 percent in Diyala and 78 to 21 percent in Ninewa, according to initial reports from local election officials.
Diyala's turnout was only 57 percent, suggesting many Sunnis there may have stayed away.
And Sunnis in both provinces may have split their votes after one major Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, came out in support of the constitution after amendments were written into the draft text Wednesday. Those amendments give Sunni Arabs the opportunity in the next parliament to try to bring about deeper changes in the constitution.
One man who voted "yes" in Mosul said his fellow Sunnis should campaign hard for the Dec. 15 vote.
"We have to move through this period to the next stage, and we can do it by organized dialogue," said Ayad Abdul Razzaq, 45.
That is the reaction U.S. and Iraqi leaders are hoping for, and the Shiite-dominated government insisted it would make room for the Sunnis.
"We know that there is a level of polarization," said Laith Kubba, the chief government spokesman. "Iraq is one big family, and we know that if a part of the family is not happy we cannot live in the same house."